Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi sits for a group photo during the 21st Century Panglong peace talks with ethnic representatives to mark 70th anniversary of Myanmar Union Day in Panglong, Southern Shan State, on February 12, 2017. Photo: AFP/Lamin Tun
Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi sits for a group photo during the 21st Century Panglong peace talks with ethnic representatives to mark 70th anniversary of Myanmar Union Day in Panglong, Southern Shan State, on February 12, 2017. Photo: AFP/Lamin Tun

When Myanmar President Htin Kyaw announced On January 4 his government’s intention to amend the former military regime’s 2008 Constitution, he effectively opened the campaign season for the 2020 general elections.

The vow, made symbolically during an Independence Day speech, was likely tailored for his and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy-led (NLD) elected government to woo back voters it has alienated through failure to fulfill various election campaign promises after nearly two years in office.

While the NLD’s support base in many of the ethnic majority Bamar-dominated areas might not be much effected, the party’s popularity has likely fallen off precipitously in the various ethnic minority regions that helped to hand Suu Kyi a landslide win at the November 2015 poll – the first legitimate general election held in the country in over two decades.

That democratic result, which won the NLD 86% of seats in the National Assembly, was widely viewed at the time as a tactical vote against a continuation of military rule. Now, many of the homegrown ethnic-based political parties that lost to Suu Kyi, 72, and the NLD at those polls are preparing for a comeback, a phenomenon that could split the anti-military vote at the 2020 elections.

To be sure, relations between the main ethnic Bamar political parties, namely the NLD, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and National Unity Party (NUP), are far from smooth.

But while the NLD and ethnic political parties, as well as the latter’s aligned ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), had cordial ties during decades of harsh military rule, the current state of relations has shifted unmistakably towards cautious reluctance. This is largely due to the shifting attitudes and positions of the NLD and de facto national ruler Suu Kyi.

An ethnic woman takes a selfie with State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi after the opening ceremony of the 21st Century Panglong Conference in Naypyitaw, May 24, 2017. Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

When the NLD took office in April 2016, it almost immediately revealed its true colors on its stated commitment to “democratic federalism“, a devolution of power from the center to periphery most ethnic groups feel is necessary for peace and reconciliation. In every ethnic state, Suu Kyi has appointed NLD representatives as chief ministers, even in areas where her party won only a minority of the state’s legislative seats.

The NLD has leveraged the presidential prerogative enshrined in the military-devised 2008 Constitution to maintain central control, despite the party’s previous stated position each state’s chief ministers should be elected by the people and not appointed by Union President.

The NLD has appointed its representatives as chief ministers to Rakhine and Shan states, even though the Arakan National Party (ANP) came out on top in the former with a resounding 23 seats, or 48.9% of the vote in 2015.

In Shan State, the NLD has appointed its man to the top minister spot even though it placed third, with a mere 23 seats or 16.2% of the vote. The ethnic-based Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) came in second behind the USDP’s 33 seats, representing 23.2% of the vote.

The NLD’s bid at inclusive reconciliation politics are more apparent at the national level. The party nominated and appointed ethnic minority representatives to many important positions, including ethnic Karen Mahn Win Khaing Than of the NLD and ethnic Rakhine Aye Tha Aung of the ANP as the speaker and deputy speaker respectively of the Upper House.

In the Lower House, Win Myint, an ethnic Bamar NLD member, and T Khun Myat, a Kachin lawmaker representing the USDP, currently serve as the speaker and deputy speaker. Henry Van Thio, an ethnic Chin member of parliament and NLD member, was appointed second vice president by the NLD.

Yet these appointments are now widely viewed as cosmetic with little positive impact on ethnic and national reconciliation, including through Suu Kyi’s moribund and widely criticized 21st Century Panglong peace process. That’s due largely to Suu Kyi’s monopolization of power, with little consultation or agreement towards building a multi-party coalition for collective decision-making.

As for the opposition USDP and NUP, ethnic groups still see those parties as an extension of the military and its vast commercial interests, and as protectors of the military-drawn constitution, which guarantees a 25% bloc in parliament for military appointees. That unified bloc allows the military to block any attempts at constitutional change.

Of the 91 political parties that contested the 2015 general elections, 59 parties represented ethnic or religious minorities, according to the Transnational Institute, an independent think tank.

These included parties from seven major ethnic groups with their own states, namely the Kachin, Kayah or Karenni, Karen, Chin, Mon, Rakhine or Arakan and Shan, as well as some smaller sub-minorities. Most major ethnic groups are represented by at least two or more parties.

Ethnic Lisu women wait for the arrival of Aung San Suu Kyi while campaigning at Hsiseng township in Shan state, September 5, 2015. Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

Against this backdrop, and defying ethnic parties’ calls on the NLD not to field competing candidates in their home states, the NLD won the elections in nearly all the ethnic states, leaving many ethnic parties without representation or only a handful of seats in national and local assemblies.

The pro-NLD and anti-military result underscored the division among ethnic-based parties and confusion caused by the emergence of many military-linked ethnic parties that contested the rigged 2010 polls, which the USDP won and NLD boycotted.

With those lessons learned, ethnic parties are now bidding to either form alliances or merge together to fend off mainstream Bamar-dominated parties, including the NLD, at the 2020 elections. So far, five Karen, two Kayah and three Kachin ethnic political parties have merged to form new super parties to represent their respective states.

Five ethnic Chin parties, meanwhile, have agreed to form a loose alliance to contest the next election. Mon state actors are also now bidding to form a national-level party within six months comprised of various small political parties now active in the state.

One outlier to the trend towards ethnic party consolidation is Rakhine state, where the successful ANP, a fusion of two ethnic Arakan parties, has separated again over policy disagreements. The other is Shan state, where the two main homegrown parties still have divergent political views, including towards the government’s peace process.

This all makes for a muddled political outlook ahead of the 2020 elections. The NLD will no doubt aim to maintain its current super-majority, while the USDP will likely strive to improve on its meager 10% of the vote and through greater numbers improve its leverage vis-à-vis the NLD.

Ethnics leaders attend the opening ceremony of the 21st Century Panglong Conference in Naypyitaw, August 31, 2016. Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

Ethnic parties’ electoral aims, on the other hand, will be to win in their homelands and form state governments that implement policies more in-tune with local aspirations for autonomy and rights than the incumbent NLD state ministers have advanced.

If ethnic parties put forward popular platforms, the NLD will stand the most to lose. Suu Kyi’s party is already arguably poised to lose many constituencies it resoundingly won in 2015. Some analysts suggest those losses could stem from a surge in popularity for the military-backed USDP for its hardline stance on the Rohingya issue, which appeals to many ethnic Bamar nationalists.

The newly formed 88 Generation political party, comprised of former popular student leader political prisoners, is also poised to enter the political fray. Analysts believe it could split the pro-democracy activist vote the NLD monopolized at the last election, but could lose after taking various pro-military positions since winning power.

While re-energized Kachin, Karen, Kayah, Chin and Mon political parties aim to improve on their poor showings vis-à-vis the NLD in 2015, it’s unclear if recent alliances and mergers will be enough to take control of their states and political destinies through the ballot box.

But the moves signal a possible redistribution and reconfiguration of power that could do more for ethnic aspirations than has a so far ineffectual NLD-led peace process.

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